Something in my mind said “Plum,” so I circled back home on my green Schwinn 10-speed once again. I’d already done this 7, 8, 9 times. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, not too hot for an aimless cruise around town, but those plums were so perfect, so juicy, so sweet. They were sitting on the counter, a whole box of them from some farm stand. And there were so many of them, so many more to go, maybe all of them before my plum loop could be interrupted.
When is this going to stop? I was fascinated by what I was a party to and also a touch worried to be in the grip of something that seemed to be overtaking me from the outside. Or the inside. I didn’t know where it was coming from but either direction was concerning. What is going on here? At age 16 I didn’t think eating disorder which wasn’t so much in the public mind at that point. I thought existential angst.
“This is existential angst,” I said to myself, astonished that this big concept had come for me, just a kid really, even though I pretended otherwise. While I didn’t exactly know the meaning of existential angst, I was in a phase of mining high-minded sounding books for impressive concepts and big meaning and this situation looked ripe with existential implication. Conceptually, there was something suspicious about my plum rapture, like it was covering for a basic dis-ease I was having with life, with living it. I suspected the plums were a distraction from an underlying agitation.
Bearing the weight of real-life existential angst, I felt strange, like a character right out of a novel, and also more real, like I was now an official participant in life. It was finally here. And here I was, at the beginning of my long and increasingly complicated life of feeling things.
Starting with terror:
There was the terror of walking to work in the dark across the railroad tracks through the shanty section of town. There was the terror I might not be as smart as I pretended to be. There was the terror of choking with no one around to do the Heimlich like one of the mamas from the Mama’s and Papa’s who died eating a ham sandwich. The terror of bringing two children into the world more precious to me than I had any idea was possible. The terror of entrapment, of being roped into obligations without an escape hatch. The terror that I might never write a book along with the companion terror that there wasn’t one in me. The terror of having to endure the unendurable, like childbirth or, conversely, the death of a child. Oh, how I longed to be safe.
In longings alone I could fill up a good two years’ worth of feeling:
The longing for a soul mate. The longing for all the plastic Little Tyke shit to be out of the living room. The longing for a well-organized life with all the photos in albums. The longing for a happy ending. The longing to be precious. The longing for the relentless list of tasks to be done with the companion longing to be permanently ahead. The longing for sugar and wine. The longing for a paved driveway. The longing for my two children to love each other. The longing for a good night’s sleep. The longing for truth and wholeness. The longing that it all be done. And after all my known longings are quantified and categorized, then there will always be, “The inconsolable longing for we know not what,” as C.S. Lewis said.
I could work my way through the whole A to Z alphabet of feelings I have had over the course of my life and still not get over the primary shock that I exist at all. Even now, at the start of my sixth decade, there is still so much left to keep feeling it blows my mind. You would think you’d eventually run out of feelings or wear them out after a few decades. But that’s not how it works. They just keep coming, sometimes pairing up with another in a contradictory, wine-like varietal blend of bittersweet, love/hate, thrilling terror. Most confusing, though, are the emotions you don’t know you’re having. Just the other day I woke up right off the bat with a blackness hovering around the edges before I’d even moved, before anything had the chance to go wrong. Within that first minute of consciousness I discovered I wanted nothing to do with the day. It reminded me of the dark hole PMS would hurl me into back before menopause. With a weary fortitude, I gathered my legs out from under the blankets and stuck them up in the air. Stretching. Old person stretching before I get out of bed. A sweet way, actually, to enter the day and ideal for a person who would rather not participate in life, the slow stretching a gentle insistence.
That’s how I lived the day, with a plodding and practiced insistence coupled with confusion as to where this blackness was coming from. I woke the next day to the same deadness, this time the black part of me announcing it would not be going to work today. A familiar song. Again I gathered my legs out from under the blankets and began the stretch. Here we go. Down the stairs. Into the kitchen. Power up the Keurig. Easy does it. But then Gary came downstairs and in an unexpected flurry of productivity, we fired up the computer to pay my bills quick before it got forgotten again, before, once more, it got pushed off by this thing and this thing and this thing until 4 weeks of things had created a smell in the computer room, the computer over there in the corner off-gassing guilt.
And within 5 minutes of paper shuffling, credit card retrieving and computer keying, instant liberation. I walked back into the kitchen hungry for toast and wondering what was on my Outlook calendar for the day.
How did I not know the bills were behind the blackness? How could this straightforward detail have been kept from me? How could I be out of touch with what is going on inside me? Why am I not the knower of everything known within me?
On an ordinary day when I was around 40, an ordinary day with no big crisis, no hard feelings, nothing to process, nothing to grieve, on this ordinary day while sitting in the middle of route 1A traffic waiting to turn left onto my road, one of the sisters in Beth Henley’s play “Crimes of the Heart” popped into my head as she regularly has over the decades since reading that play. This is the sister who goes to the local ice cream parlor every single night to toughen herself up for life by watching the news on the wall-mounted tv as she licks down an ice cream cone, two scoops. It’s training. If she can enjoy dessert while watching disaster then she can survive in the world. She can lick it all down. I sat there in the middle of Route 1A traffic and thought about her tactic of licking it all down. I thought about how much ice cream I would have to eat before being anywhere close to usefully trained for the management of all this emotion. And then, sitting there waiting to turn left, I thought, “Maybe the problem is I just feel too much. There is just too much to feel. Maybe,” I thought, “I am just not made for this world.”
But then there are the plums, so juicy, so delicious, so sweet. The only thing to do is eat them.